Tallula’s elevates Mexican comfort food to an art with locally sourced, seasonal ingredients
By Angela Matano
With the runaway success of Huckleberry Bakery & Café, Milo & Olive, Rustic Canyon Wine Bar, Cassia, Esters Wine Shop & Bar and Sweet Rose Creamery, husband-and-wife restaurateurs Josh Loeb and Zoe Nathan have really put their stamp on Santa Monica.
The couple’s latest epicurean adventure is Tallula’s, a neighborhood Mexican restaurant that opened a few months ago behind Patrick’s Roadhouse, just off PCH.
At the very edge of Santa Monica, Tallula’s exemplifies what their Rustic Canyon Group does best: serving elegant comfort food made with fresh, seasonal ingredients. The restaurant sources its organic dairy from California farms and its produce from the Santa Monica Farmers Market, the menu changing with the seasons.
“Local produce is everything,” effused Loeb. “All of our places are different, but they will all have the best ingredients. Making things by hand — a lot of imagination, unpretentious. The seasonality. You have to commit to a certain style of eating. Sometimes it’s going to cost more, but it’s worth it.”
Loeb grew up in the Rustic Canyon neighborhood and used to frequent Marix, the Tex-Mex cantina that operated where Tallula’s is now. In pursuit of “the greatest neighborhood restaurant — really good ingredients, but not fancy,” Loeb said — he and Nathan once again joined forces with Chef Jeremy Fox, co-owner and head chef of their flagship Rustic Canyon Wine Bar on Wilshire Boulevard. The addition of pastry chef Laurel Almerinda and bar manager Aaron Ranf formed a veritable culinary Justice League.
By joining forces with different partners for each of their undertakings, Loeb and Nathan ensure that one location’s character remains distinct from its siblings.
“All of our restaurants are partnerships because it’s the only way for each place to feel individual and special. Everything has its own identity,”
Tallula’s contemporary take on Mexican fare feels right at home in Santa Monica Canyon. Considering last year’s one-two punch closures of Loteria! Grill on the Promenade and Border Grill on 4th Street, it couldn’t have come at a better time. It’s like the universe stepped in to rectify that situation, surely having seen the error of its ways.
The interior of the restaurant (helmed by Oonagh Ryan’s ORA) emanates a groovy, luxe bohemian ’70s vibe. Turquoise figures big, as does macramé.
“The idea is to make it homey and comfortable. We wanted it to be fun —Tulum, Mexico colors. A happy place,” said Loeb.
Tallula’s manages that and more, with soaring ceilings, handcrafted details like colorful rag rugs, and mosaic tile tables evoking both the nearby ocean and a Mexican beach town without tottering into kitsch. “Hecho con Amor” (Spanish for “Made with Love”) is a bit of a mantra throughout Tallula’s, inscribed on walls, menus and postcards.
Of course, the food is what you really care about. For those looking to drink and snack, there are plenty of options. The chile fundido combines queso panela and Oaxaca cheeses, scarlet runner beans and vaquero beans to make an almost stew-like dip, accompanied by piping hot, puffy tortillas. Eaten at the bar, along with a house margarita or an Avocado-lada (Selvarey Rum, Taylor’s Velvet Falernum, avocado, lime, pineapple, egg white), the queso panela nearly transports you on a daycation to the state of Quintana Roo.
“The best Mexican food is the kind you eat with your hands and a tortilla,” said Loeb. “Simple is one of the hardest things to do.”
With that in mind, sharing is encouraged at Tallula’s, which jibes with the family-friendly air of the place. The small and large plates alike come begging to be divvied up.
The pocket-sized fish tostadas and swordfish tacos layer flavors, with interesting veggies and herbs like shishito peppers and epazote. The hanger steak, with chipotle and pardon peppers, combines nicely with handmade corn tortillas. Throw in a side of beans and rice — or for those with an eye toward healthy choices, order the quelites: a green mix of braised kale, chicories and chard, joined by salsa ranchera.
Dessert is never optional at a Zoe Nathan joint. Her union with Almerinda celebrates classic Mexican favorites, like tres leches cake and pan dulce. The twists in the sweets mirror those in the food, never settling for the obvious. Honey, chamomile and fresh berries create an original tres leches, while the ice cream sundae showcases sweet corn.
“Our rule of thumb has always been to mix naughty and nice,” explains Loeb.
Tallula’s may prove to be just what the neighborhood needs, a welcoming respite from tourists, traffic and mediocre chain food.
Angela Matano has written about food for Los Angeles Magazine and LA Weekly.
Tallula’s 118 Entrada Drive, Santa Monica (310) 526-0027 tallulasrestaurant.com